By Andrew Warshaw
May 3 – Unthinkable, unimaginable, unprecedented. Headline news across the country and worldwide. Even the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, described it as a fairytale and a “beautiful story” – one which will doubtless be told and retold for decades to come.
The impossible dream finally became a reality Monday night when Leicester City, 5000 to 1 outsiders at the start of the season, duly clinched the English Premier League title without even playing – and set off the mother of all parties in the English midlands town as they celebrated one of the greatest and most unlikely team sporting achievements of this or any era.
For the first time in 38 years, the title went to a new name but one of the least expected, the like of which has rarely been seen in modern football where money generally dictates league championships.
The remarkable feat was a personal triumph for Leicester’s highly likeable and much-travelled Italian manager Claudio Ranieri who secured his own first league title in a 30-year career that has taken him across Europe and beyond.
Leicester narrowly avoided relegation this time last year and will officially be crowned champions when they host Everton on Saturday, winning the championship with two rounds to spare as Tottenham Hotspur, the only challengers who could catch them, imploded as they squandered a two-goal lead to be held 2-2 in a bad-tempered match by defending champions Chelsea, who have underperformed woefully this season but ensured the title went to Ranieri, one of their own former managers.
“I’m so proud,” said Ranieri. “The players have been fantastic. Their focus, their determination, their spirit has made this possible. I’m a pragmatic man – I just wanted to win match after match. Never did I think too much about where it would take us.”
Tottenham’s own achievements, having scored the most goals in the Premier League and conceded the fewest with the youngest squad in the top flight, have been cruelly overlooked amid the euphoria of Leicester’s Cinderella story. The north London club, so often in the shadow of neighbours Arsenal, will now fight to cling on to second place and secure their highest ever Premier League finish.
Leicester might have had their fair share of luck and were certainly helped by lack of injuries. There is no doubt too that many of the usual cash-rich suspects like Chelsea and Manchester City are in transition.
But no-one can deny Ranieri’s side their remarkable workrate and supreme team spirit as the entire squad, including many players who were written off with other clubs, came together to form a indefatigable bond, seizing their chance under a manager who was greeted when he arrived last summer with some scepticism after a patchy career but who proved that experience is invaluable after spells at the likes of Chelsea, Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Inter Milan.
Ranieri’s task, let’s not forget, was to keep Leicester in the top flight, not to win anything. But with the pressure off once his team had achieved survival with the requisite number of points, they gradually built momentum, losing just three league games – to date at least. That statistic alone says everything about their resilience and consistency as they shattered all the established norms about how to win the title.
The financial prizes will now be enormous. Analysts predict Leicester are set for a potential £150m windfall by the combined Premier League prize money, Champions League participation and increased match day revenues from ticket and hospitality sales (the club can now charge a premium at their already sold out King Power stadium).
But their place in the annals of top-flight football is not about money. It’s about the underdog disproving every single expert, it’s about giving hope to every fan of every unheralded club. It’s about sporting immortality.
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